Failure Needs to be a Choice, but not the Destination

Seedlings emerging.

Seedlings emerging.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit over this subject of failure and the fear

that absolutely paralyzes out of action.  This is is true in many areas of life, though I see it rather prevalent within the context of teaching and especially learning.  Tom Daccord put it best the other day, when he said, “We value risk-taking traits in our students, but we often avoid [it] in our own instructional practices.”

The learning process is not about getting it right – though we’ve built classrooms, curriculum, courses and whole colleges and universities around this idea.  I think there’s a time and place for getting the answer correct – standardized tests come to mind rather quickly.  Yet the measure of a student is far better appreciated when we’re able to remember where they’ve come from and how far they have progressed.

One of the things I love to tinker with is growing things during the spring and summer seasons of the year. From time to time when I have time, I’ll even start seeds indoors while there’s still a chance of frost outside. I’ve even taken up an entire side of our kitchen counters for days, just to get the planters filled with dirt and get the seeds started.  I plant all kinds of things: flowers, herbs, vegetables.  I don’t really have a rhyme or reason for what I choose, but I know that at some point further down the road there’s a possibility that I may see the potential they hold.

Wildflower blooming.

Wildflower blooming.

Some will be tall.
Some will be short.
Some will be colorful.
Some will be aromatic.

Some will need a structure to support their growth; others will just need a steadying force.
Some of them will need light to shine – while others will need less light to shine.
Some of them will produce fruit – others will produce thorns.
Some of them will grow great in planters, while others will yearn still for more space than I can give them.

All of them have the potential to grow, but none of them will grow in same way on the same day.What I can do is learn about how they best grow, knowing I’m not going to get it ‘just right’ every time.  As a teacher I must learn from my failures rather than being undone by them.  Failure is not an opportunity that orders us to sulk – it can be a subtle breeze that requires us to begin again.

We need to treat failure not as our intended destination, but as a necessary component of success – a required oar in the set of tools that help propel us forward in our learning journey.  This means that we have got to get to a place where we place greater value on failures resulting from honest effort rather than stigmatizing it as something that makes us less human, and more ‘wrong’.  This doesn’t mean we intentionally lead or go on journeys we know to be counter productive, but that we allow room to learn from failures as much as we praise learning that results in ‘correct answers’.

When I get seeds for my garden, I often get them from plants I’ve had in the past.  Sometimes I even pick them up from plants I see around where I live.  From time to time though, I do pick them up from the store – and it’s often so tempting to simply skip the seeds and go straight to the seedlings, medium or full sized ones; well-manicured, already in nice planters – ready to go.  I’ll grant that I’ve done that sometimes – yet the reward remains at the aesthetic level – I have no appreciation for ever having journeyed with those plants.  I have no idea, nor can I appreciate how they may have struggled, or what type of care they needed to begin with.  I simply ‘standardize’ on giving them water and sunlight, and expect that they’ll continue to be a successful part of the garden.

Ladybugs collaborating.

Ladybugs collaborating.

I think we have to do (to a measure) what Sir Ken Robinson says, “Human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them, they’re not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves.” We have to create the circumstances that help children (and ourselves) figure out and develop those capacities that are – in fact buried deep – and failure is part of that.

Not all my plants grow to their full potential – I’m not a professional gardener. Yet with each year, each plant and season – I learn.  I learn that my grape vine doesn’t want to be watered – if it’s too ever produce any fruit.  I’ve learned that while I can plant strawberries – they will not flourish because of how dry the soil is.  I’ve learned that my hydrangeas need so much more light – and so I moved them.  I figured out that large planters really do need drainage, or whatever I put in them will suffocate and kill the roots of whatever I put in them. I even learned that aphids can be overcome with ladybugs.

Go grow. Grow students. Grow children. Grow yourself; even from failure.

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